Half Full/Mark Wilcox

Author’s note: Before you call or email me, I understand I may have spelled many of these names incorrectly. As I don’t have a Rock phone book nearby and I’m relying on the memory of an old man, I did the best I could.

A few weeks ago a colleague was proofreading the obituary page. One of the obituaries was for a man whose first name was Toivo, which caused the colleague to say something along the lines of the Copper Country is “losing our Toivos.” I took that to mean, the Finnish first names that were so much a part of the Keweenaw, and other parts of the U.P., are disappearing, giving way to more American-sounding names.

His comment immediately took me back to my home town. As I’ve mentioned, perhaps too much, I was raised in the central Upper Peninsula town of Rock. In my youth, the town was predominately Finnish. The majority of kids in my class, including me, had at least one grandparent born in Finland. So as a kid, the names Toivo, Reino and Sulo were more common than Tom, Dick and Harry. Rock was the “most Finnish” town in Delta County, where French Canadian, Italian and Croatian were the more dominant nationalities. So to my friends in Escanaba, the names that were normal to me seemed so unusual. Folks my age or better might remember when the phone books were divided by individual towns. So Rock, took up a whopping two and a half pages in the Escanaba directory.

My mom’s friend Joyce used to amuse her kids by reading names out of the Rock listing. They’d giggle at “Tauno Pelto, Ahti Waak, Reino Kivakis, Maini Halmioja and Sulo and Imppi Peltola.” (The things folks did for entertainment before Netflix).

But I never understood what was so funny. These names seemed perfectly normal to me These were the names of the people in my world. My people. The ones I delivered the Grit to, my 4-H leaders, parents and grandparents of friends and, yes, relatives.

I’ve often joked that one of the mysteries in my mother’s family is her father’s first name. You see he was born in Finland while his younger brothers were born in America. Their names were the very Finnish “Eino” and “Waino” while by grandfather, the one born in the old country, was named Frank. Never understood it, probably never will.

But on to the point of all this. There were so many people special to me in my youth with these wonderful names, Waino and Alma Baakka, Vilho Kaukkola, Sulo Ruotsala, who was our local auctioneer, and so many more. But these names seem to be dying with the wonderful people who had them.

Truth be told, as proud as folks are of their Finnish heritage around here, you don’t see any kids named Eino or Toivo at pre-school these days. Those names are hard to come by in my generation and I’m rapidly approaching senior citizen status. (In fact Econo Foods has already put me there).

I went to 4-H camp with a kid my age named Eino and I have a friend roughly my age around here named Reino. But that’s it. Those great names belong to another generation.

My mother’s family is a great example. My Papa Frank’s brothers and their wives were named, Eino, Waino, Signe and Ida. But their children were Jerry, Alice, Rob, Al and Sylvia. All grew up proud of their Finnish heritage even though they all brandished American names.

I need look no further than under my own roof. The children in my household are named Julianne and Marshall. Pretty hip modern kids with hip modern names. But they are just two generations removed from Uno and Elma. As fond as I am of those old Rock names, during the only time in my life I had to consider “baby names,” Samuel and Catherine were at the top of the list, not Arvo or Lemppi.

I guess it’s just another sign that I’m growing older, my fondness for things that don’t exist anymore. I had a friend, quite a bit older than me, who was raised on a farm in Minnesota. He said “It wasn’t until I was drafted into the Army and left home that I realized that cow manure stunk,” To him it was just the smell of home.

That’s how these old-fashioned names are to me. They’re not unusual at all. They remind me of a place I still love.

Editor’s note: Mark Wilcox is the Managing Editor at The Daily Mining Gazette.